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The Content and the Conversation

Formatively Assessing Oral Scientific Argumentation

Science Scope—January/February 2022 (Volume 45, Issue 3)

By Christina Morales, Megan Goss, April Holton, Eric Greenwald, and J. Bryan Henderson

The Content and the Conversation

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) call for students to engage in Argument from Evidence (Practice 7, NGSS Lead States 2013). Accordingly, both written and oral argumentation are playing larger roles in helping students make sense of complex science ideas. Well-timed, meaningful feedback can support students’ capacity with this essential science practice. However, oral arguments are challenging to assess in real time. They are fast moving and require complex multitasking from teachers as they listen to the content of the arguments presented and help students to maintain cordial conversational norms (Sampson, Enderle, and Walker 2012). Formative assessment and just-in-time supports, then, should attend to both the arguments presented as well as students’ engagement in the social practice of argumentation itself. In this column, we map out these two dimensions of oral scientific argumentation. We also present a framework aimed at bringing these dimensions—the content of arguments presented and the social practice of scientific argumentation—into focus.

Two dimensions at play during oral scientific argumentation

Imagine a hypothetical class discussion led by students. Perhaps it goes something like this: After considering claims and evidence independently, students are ready to share their ideas. One student identifies the claim they think is most convincing and provides supportive evidence. Another student draws on a relevant science idea to explain how the evidence connects to the claim. Next, a third student enters the conversation, interrupting with a point that is unrelated to the argument at hand, sparking a side conversation.

How do you provide formative feedback to this group? It might be tempting to apply the same assessment criteria for written arguments to oral exchanges like this. For example, are individual students making claims? Is the content each student shared accurate? However, oral scientific argumentation is more than a single argument. Rather, it encompasses both the intrapersonal (the arguments students pose) and the interpersonal (how they work together as a group to move their thinking forward). Much of this will be missed if formative assessment focuses solely on the content-related contributions of each individual.

Formatively assessing the intra- and interpersonal

Informed by existing research (see “Ideas That Guide Our Formative Assessment Framework” in box) as well as emergent findings from an NSF-funded study (Henderson et al. 2021) that allowed us to partner directly with teachers in their classrooms, we identified eight components of oral scientific argumentation. Four of these components focus on the content of arguments shared (intrapersonal) and four focus on the group’s engagement in the conversation (interpersonal).

The intrapersonal dimension includes claims, evidence, reasoning, and relevance. The interpersonal dimension includes the social aspects of scientific argumentation critical to the conversation itself: listening, critiquing, co-constructing, and regulation. Through classroom observations and conversations with teachers, we developed and revised descriptive statements about what students might do or say as they demonstrate each of these components.

To enable quick scoring of these distinct aspects of oral argumentation in real time, we developed a formative assessment rubric (see the rubric for formatively assessing oral scientific argumentation in Figure 1). The rubric asks the scorer to consider how well the statement describes what they are seeing or hearing during a discussion. Aligned with the collaborative process of scientific argumentation, this rubric is designed to formatively assess the components at the group—rather than the individual—level; that is, instead of entering scores for each participant, the scorer enters scores for an entire discussion group.

The description of a hypothetical classroom discussion at the beginning of this article highlights how the rubric can support formative assessment that encompasses both the intra- and interpersonal dimensions. Feedback that addresses the intrapersonal aspects of claim, evidence, and reasoning attends only to the argument presented. However, it is clear that there is much more happening during this exchange. Referencing the rubric widens the formative assessment lens to encompass the interpersonal dimension, bringing aspects such as co-constructing and regulation into focus. Tips for noticing and providing tailored support for each aspect of argumentation are provided in Figures 2 and 3 (see Online Resources).

Our teacher partners noted how using the rubric helped them listen more carefully and notice aspects of the conversation that had gone unnoticed before. For instance, one teacher shared the following reflection: “Over time, my whole focus shifted . . . I started [asking] how are they thinking? How are they reasoning? How are they working with each other? I am able to see where students were successful [during the discussion], because I know about things like critiquing or co-constructing.”

Other teachers also noted a shift in focus from the contributions of individual students to the complex exchanges that were happening between students.

Getting started

You can use the rubric whenever students engage in evidence-based discussion in pairs, groups, or as a class. You do not need to formatively assess all eight components of oral argumentation at once. In fact, many teachers we worked with chose to focus on one intrapersonal and one interpersonal component each time they assessed their students.

If you prefer to enter scores digitally, you can access an online version of the rubric (see Online Resources for link to the DiALoG homepage). When you follow the link, you can access the scoring rubric by choosing “Start.” This digital rubric was developed in collaboration with focal teachers and field tested in 44 classrooms across the country as part of our larger NSF-funded study. The digital version of the rubric allows you to record notes, see tips, and view a report. In addition, the digital version provides Responsive Mini-Lessons (RMLs) that target each component and are suggested based on the scores you enter.


Evidence-based scientific discussions can provide windows not only into students’ science content understanding but also into how students are working together as a learning community to advance their scientific thinking. Providing opportunities to engage in oral argumentation can help students build capacity with this essential and authentic science practice. The framework and rubric offered here provide guidance for attending to both the intra- and interpersonal aspects of oral scientific argumentation in a systematic way.

Online Resources

Figures 1–3:

DiALoG homepage—

Christina Morales ( and Megan Goss are educational researchers and curriculum developers at the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California Berkeley. Eric Greenwald is a learning sciences researcher with a focus on formative assessment practices, also at the Lawrence Hall of Science. April Holton is a clinical assistant professor and J. Bryan Henderson is an associate professor, both at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University in Tempe.


Henderson, J.B., N. Zillmer, A. Holton, S. Weiner, E. Greenwald, M. Goss, M.L. Lopez, C. Morales, P.D. Pearson, and K. McNeill. 2021. How science teachers DiALoG their classrooms: Towards a practical and responsive formative assessment of oral classroom argumentation. Journal of Science Education and Technology 30: 803–815.

Kuhn, D., and W. Udell. 2003. The development of argument skills. Child development 74 (5): 1245–1260.

Michaels, S., C. O’Connor, and L.B. Resnick. 2008. Deliberative discourse idealized and realized: Accountable talk in the classroom and in civic life. Studies in Philosophy and Education 27 (4): 283–297.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Osborne, J., S. Erduran, and S. Simon. 2004. Enhancing the quality of argumentation in school science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 41 (10): 994–1020.

Sampson, V., P.J. Enderle, and J.P. Walker. 2012. The development and validation of the assessment of scientific argumentation in the classroom (ASAC) observation protocol: A tool for evaluating how students participate in scientific argumentation. In Perspectives on scientific argumentation, ed. M.S. Khine, 235–264. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Assessment NGSS Teaching Strategies Middle School

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